Green Book is the reverse Driving Miss Daisy. Photograph from Universal Pictures
Culture Movies

REVIEW: Green Book's take on racism is so trite and diagrammed

This Oscar-nominated road trip dramedy has its own internal Green Book--never going beyond its overt intent to please its audience, and never bothering to go deep on its take on race relations.  
Andrew Paredes | Feb 06 2019

Directed by Peter Farrelly

Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini

Green Book gets its title from the ‘60s booklet that listed establishments—hotels, restaurants, bars—that were friendly to black people traveling in the American South. A Lonely Planet, if you will, against racial discrimination. This Oscar-nominated road trip dramedy directed by Peter Farrelly (yes, that Peter Farrelly—the one who had Cameron Diaz use semen as hair product) operates with its own internal Green Book, as well, never straying from the familiar feel-good paths traveled by movies from Driving Miss Daisy to The Upside.

A tough, working-class Italian named Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) plays driver to Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a classically trained jazz pianist. Photograph from Universal Pictures.

In fact, Green Book—which is supposedly inspired by true events—is both those movies in reverse: A tough, working-class Italian named Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen, packing on the pounds and playing the father of one of the film’s co-screenwriters, Nick Vallelonga) applies to be the driver of Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a classically trained jazz pianist, as he goes on a concert tour through the South. As we are first introduced to these characters, the film sets up points of friction and telegraphs its areas of resolution. Tony is a crass goombah who stuffs his face with pasta and hotdogs, and is so racist that he dumps the drinking glasses used by two black plumbers who worked on his apartment’s pipes.

Don is an uppity control freak who is so cultured that he lives above Carnegie Hall; he even interviews Tony in a gold robe while sitting on a throne. As in the movies listed above, both characters will teach each other lessons in tolerance, and a heart-warming friendship will be forged.

Ali, here with Dimiter D. Marinov and Mike Hatton, plays an uppity control freak set to do a concert tour in the American South. Photograph from IMDb

At least that’s the plan: Green Book’s take on racism is so trite and diagrammed, the film feels less written than mapped out. Not only is the plot well-trodden, there is a symmetry to the characterizations that reflects the on-both-sides attitude toward race in Trump’s America. Tony needs to stop calling black people “jungle bunnies”; Don needs to stop criticizing Tony’s diction. Tony needs to learn how to write a romantic letter to his wife; Don needs to appreciate Kentucky Fried Chicken and Aretha Franklin (a narrative element also present in The Upside, by the way).

But the film doesn’t bother to go exploring uncharted territory, especially when it comes to Mahershala Ali’s enigmatic Don Shirley. There is one incident of homosexuality that the film tangentially dramatizes, then doesn’t remark upon again. The real Don Shirley apparently held a degree in psychology; a more perceptive film might have used that as a basis to say that Don’s affectations and aloofness were a calculated defense mechanism. But Green Book is too intent on its crowd-pleasing objective to be interested in anything deeper.

Linda Cardellini (here with Mortensen) plays Dolores, the driver Tony's wife. Photograph from Universal Pictures.

What counts as crowd-pleasing is a bit discomfiting, as well. In Green Book, the black man is portrayed as a lost, sensitive soul who needs protecting, a Magical Negro in need of a White Savior. Even more disturbingly, Green Book and its cinematic brethren posit that such relationships can only start out being transactional in nature. Sure, there can be harmony amongst the races—but someone needs to be paid first.

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And yet…

It is a film that we Filipinos, with our default stance of White Is Better, should see. Black Panther made an idealized vision of Africa palatable by packaging it as a Marvel brand, but films that tackle the black experience on its own terms—like BlacKkKlansman or If Beale Street Could Talk—are unlikely to get a release here. And so we must make do with a film that, like The Upside, inserts a Caucasian protagonist into the lesson that black people are good, regular folks just like us. It’s that little bit of white sugar that helps the medicine go down.